Plant milks for babies and children

0-6 months

Babies younger than six months should not be offered any plant milk. If breastfeeding is not possible, the only alternative for feeding a baby is to use formula milks specifically designed and produced to meet infants’ requirements.

Giving a baby any regular plant milk that can be bought in supermarkets (soya, almond, oat…) or a home-made formula (mixing regular plant milks with fruit and or vegetable juices) is very dangerous and almost always will lead to severe malnutrition and death.

What formula milks are available for vegan families?

Soya formula milk: It is based on isolated soya protein, contains maltodextrin as the source of carbohydrates and a mixture of vegetable oils and fats. It is supplemented with some amino acids, vitamins and minerals in the specific amounts required by law.

Soya formula milks have been used for over a century, are safe and have shown to promote growth and development comparable to that of breastfed babies or babies fed cow’s milk formula.

In the UK, there is one formula milk based on soya: SMA WySoy

It is almost entirely vegan. The only ingredient that is of animal origin is vitamin D, which accounts for a tiny fraction of the overall content. SMA WySoy is fortified with plant-based DHA (omega-3).

SMA WySoy can be bought in many supermarkets, pharmacies and other retailers like Boots. You do not need a prescription to buy it. SMA WySoy can be used from the first day after birth and until the child is 2-3 years old, and is usually well accepted and tolerated by babies. 

Hydrolysed rice protein formulas: These are more recent. They were originally developed for babies who are intolerant to cow’s milk and soya formula milks. They are not the same as the rice milks you can buy in supermarket. The manufacturers isolate the protein from rice, break it down into amino acids and add maltodextrin and a mixture of vegetable oils and fats. As whole rice is not used, their content in arsenic is low and comparable to other formulas. In addition, by law the manufacturers must analyse the formula periodically and check that the content of arsenic and other substances are below certain limits.

These formulas have been tested in babies with allergies and have proven to be safe. Because of the protein hydrolysis, some babies do not find them pleasant and might dislike them.

There are no hydrolysed rice protein formulas in the UK, but many families can obtain them from France. There are two available brands: Prémibio produces Prémiriz and La Mandorle produces Bébé M.

Both brands use organic ingredients, are free of palm oil, and are fortified with plant based DHA and plant based vitamin D. They are therefore 100% vegan. They are significantly more expensive than SMA WySoy.

6-12 months

The main source of nutrients is still breast milk or formula milk (soya based formula or hydrolysed rice protein formula). Babies between 6 and 12 months should not be offered commercial or home-made plant milks as the main drink; however, they can start eating small amounts of plant milks if they have been used for cooking any family dish.

Breastmilk and formula milk should always be given on demand: every time baby asks for it and as much or as little as he or she wants. Needs are very variable between babies and even in the same baby from day to day; the amounts shown in the table are for guidance only.

If you feel that your baby is drinking too little or too much formula, or is not gaining weight well, please check with your GP, your paediatrician or your health visitor.

 

Age0-6 months7-8 months9-12 months
Milk

Breastmilk on demand
Soya or hydrolysed rice protein formula on demand (usually babies feed 8-10 times a day between 0 and 2 months and 7-8 times between 3 and 6 months).

Breastmilk on demand
Soya or hydrolysed rice protein formula on demand (usually babies have 400-800ml/day in this period)

Breastmilk on demand
Soya or hydrolysed rice protein formula on demand (usually babies have 400-600ml/day)

FluidsNone

Offer water after meals (preferably with a spoon or on a cup for babies and not on a bottle).
Offer a few spoonfuls of freshly squeezed orange juice after main meal occasionally – this will help with iron absorption

Continue offering water after meals and in between meals.

Babies can occasionally drink (1-2 times per week) 50-100ml of freshly squeezed juice or smoothie, preferably with meals.

Supplements Breastfed babies only:
Vitamin D3: 400IU a day
If mother is not taking DHA herself, supplement baby with 100mg a day

Breastfed babies only:
Vitamin D3: 400IU a day
If mother is not taking DHA herself, supplement baby with 100mg a day

All babies:
UK government recommends vitamins A + C + D starting at 6 months and until 5 years. Vitamin D can be replaced with a multivitamin for babies that provides A + C + D
Vitamin B12: 2-3µg/day or 250µg once a week.
Babies who are not eating much solid foods: iron 1mg/kg/day

12-24 months

After 12 months, babies can start drinking commercial plant milks. If the baby is still breastfed, they do not need any other milk – it is better to give them more iron-rich solid foods in combination with breastmilk.

Babies who were taking formula milk can start replacing it progressively with calcium fortified soya milk. There are many good soya milk brands. Choose one with:

  • Low sugar content (2-2.5g/100ml is ok, they do not need to be completely unsweetened).
  • Low salt content (0.1g/100ml or less)
  • Calcium fortified

It is good if they are also iodine fortified, but this is not essential.

For toddlers who are not eating a good variety of solid foods, who have low appetite or who are experiencing poor weight gain, these are good options instead of regular soya milk:

  • Continue using soya formula until 18 or 24 months if he or she was taking it before and tolerating it well. Formula is higher in calories compared to commercial soya milk (67Kcal/100ml vs 30-40Kcal/100ml). Or:
  • Use Alpro Growing Up Soya or Alpro Growing Up Oat (which is a mixture or oat and pea protein) if you need or prefer to avoid soya. They are also higher in calories than regular plant milks (60-63Kcal/100ml) and are fortified with vitamins, calcium, iron and iodine.

 

After 24 months

Children can drink any calcium-fortified plant milk, except rice milks, which should be delayed until 5 years due to their arsenic content.

Soya milk continues to be the more nutritious option for most children, due to its higher protein content and because it also provides magnesium, iron, unsaturated fats, and B-vitamins including choline. Unless there is a good reason to avoid soya, it is advisable to offer children soya milk at least part of the time. Fortified soya yoghurts are a good alternative. As with milk, choose those yoghurts that are: 1) calcium fortified; 2) low in sugar (2-2.5g/100g or less) and 3) low in salt (0.1g/100g or less).

Some other plant milks that can be offered at this age:

  • Almond milk: Look for brands with a high almond percentage (most only contain 2% – this is equivalent to 2 almonds per glass!). For example: Innocent Almond Drink, which is fortified with calcium from seaweeds, is very low in sugar and salt, but high in unsaturated fats, protein and vitamin E.
  • Oat milk: Many brands add enzymes during the milk production that break down the complex carbohydrates into free sugar. Look for brands that contain less than 3-4g of sugar per 100ml; for example Califia Farms Unsweetened Oat Milk.

Pea protein milk could be a good option to substitute soya milk, but unfortunately the brands available at the moment in the UK are too high in salt.

Home made plant milks: Some families prefer to make their own plant milks at home. This can be a good option for adults and children older than 2 years, but it is important to fortify them with calcium. Unfortified plant milks are not a good source of calcium, and it is quite difficult for children to reach their daily calcium requirements without calcium fortified milks or yoghurts.

If you want to make your own plant-based milk, add the content of four capsules of Together Health Calcium to one litre of milk and blend well.

This is natural calcium from seaweeds, the same as many organic brands use to fortify their milks. It also provides a small amount of magnesium and a very small amount of iodine.